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Aristotle's Ethics (stanford.edu)
22 points by nyc111 on June 4, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 3 comments



A few important points to understand about Aristotle's ethics. One is that for him ethics and social and political philosophy are closely interlinked. That is, you can't have a good society unless its citizens are ethical people, and going the other way, you can't have ethical citizens unless the society is structured to produce them.

Secondly, Aristotle followed the general classical Greek view of meaning by ethics a set of principles for living a rewarding life. And this goes with my first point in that Aristotle thought the rewarding life (or at least an essential part of it) is one of productive participation in society.

Thirdly, Aristotle's approach was basically a scientific one. That is, he observed what sorts of behaviors lead to rewarding lives, and what caused people to behave in such ways or fail to, and it was from this that he derived his principles of ethical behavior. And in a similar way he derived his political philosophy.

This in turn leads to a final point. Many in the modern era criticize aspects of his political philosophy, such as his approval of slavery and an inferior position for women. But if you argue that these produce a less happy society, then you are using Aristotle's empirical method to improve his ideas, rather than starting all over and using a completely different method to derive your ethics.


This is not correct.

1) It is true that for Aristotle, ethics and politics are closely linked. (Indeed, Aristotle announces in the last chapter of the Ethics that the whole book is actually the "beginning" to the Politics.) But it is not true, for Aristotle, that "you can't have a good society unless its citizens are ethical people." In Book 3, Chapter 13 of the Politics, Aristotle actually recommends excluding the most ethical people from the polis.

2) This is completely wrong. Aristotle is not expounding a "set of principles for living a rewarding life." That is the basis of the modern ethical project. Aristotle's conception of ethics is quite different. Far from providing a set of principles to obey (à la Kant, or the deontologists), Aristotle provides a set of virtues to achieve. Living the good life, for Aristotle, is not at all about following universal principles -- rather, it is about trying to achieve the proper virtue in a given situation and context.

3) This is probably wrong, especially if you mean "science" in the modern sense of the word. As Aristotle explains in Book 6, Chapter 3 of the Ethics, for him science (episteme) is actually only one of five possible ways of "attaining the truth." (The others are art/techne, prudence/phronesis, wisdom/sophia, and intellect/nous.) And it is not clear at all that the approach that Aristotle himself takes is a "scientific" one, especially considering the way that he describes the inherent limitations of his inquiry in Book 1 of the Ethics. Furthermore, Aristotle does not observe and critique the behaviors of other people so much as he does their opinions (i.e., doxa).

4) Again, the idea that Aristotle had an "empirical method" that is basically the same as the kind of argumentation that modern commentators employ is spurious. Did Aristotle look at the world around him? Of course. Does that make him an empiricist, as you describe? No.


>In Book 3, Chapter 13 of the Politics, Aristotle actually recommends excluding the most ethical people from the polis.

But the ones who are included in the polis still have to be far more ethical than the worst people. Do you really believe that Aristotle was so foolish as to believe that you could have a good society if even half its citizens were simply bad?

>This is completely wrong. Aristotle is not expounding a "set of principles for living a rewarding life."

Then what is eudemonia supposed to be? The difference between Aristotle and (some) moderns is what they thought a rewarding life was.

>Far from providing a set of principles to obey (à la Kant, or the deontologists), Aristotle provides a set of virtues to achieve. Living the good life, for Aristotle, is not at all about following universal principles -- rather, it is about trying to achieve the proper virtue in a given situation and context.

I was writing for non-philosophers, and so I was using the terms as such people generally understand them, rather than the somewhat different meanings of academic philosophy.

And let me add that a key reason philosophy today is for most Americans seen as valueless or dangerous is that philosophers have basically stopped writing for the general public.

>This is probably wrong, especially if you mean "science" in the modern sense of the word

As someone with a background in the sciences, I meant science as actually practiced, rather than the mistaken ideas about it that some philosophers, such as the positivists, impose on it. His politics was based on systematically collecting data on over a hundred societies, and analysing it for patterns. His ethics was based on a life of carefully observing people's behavior.

>Furthermore, Aristotle does not observe and critique the behaviors of other people so much as he does their opinions (i.e., doxa).

The reason doxa matters is that people so often act on it.

>Again, the idea that Aristotle had an "empirical method" that is basically the same as the kind of argumentation that modern commentators employ is spurious. Did Aristotle look at the world around him? Of course. Does that make him an empiricist, as you describe? No.

By empirical, I simply mean extensive, systematic observation. Compare for instance Plato's writings on ethics with Aristotle's.

More generally, as someone with a background in both science and philosophy, this is what many philosophers don't get about Aristotle. He was far and away the greatest observer of humans and the natural world who ever lived, and in this I include logical thinking as a form of human behavior that can go right or wrong.

The story that philosophers have told for a long time is that modern science was based on a radical rejection of Aristotle is simply wrong. Aristotle's philosophy was based on observation plus logical thinking. As such, it is subject to correction when further observations are made.

What happened was that Aristotle established his version of the forms on the basis of observation and reasoning, and then in the modern era scientists making further observations and thinking things out further rejected the forms and replaced it with modern mechanistic thinking.




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